The Five Elements Go to the Olympics

The Summer 2012 Olympics have brought acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) into the spotlight as world-famous athletes display their acupuncture routines to the world. And it’s not just China and Japan that have sent their athletes to the Olympics with personal acupuncturists. The United States, Australia, and South Korea are also encouraging acupuncturist treatments for their athletes in London this year. If you’ve been following the Olympics, you’ve no doubt run into mention of acupuncture and its role in an athlete’s performance:

6 Olympic Athletes Aching for Acupuncture

Acupuncture and Sports Science Give Team Japan an Edge

Five Time Olympian Jumps for Acupuncture

Understanding Acupuncture and Qi in TCM

If you’ve never been exposed to traditional Chinese medicine before, you may not be aware of what acupuncture is, or the amazing benefits it can offer. Acupuncture has been in use for over 2,000 years. It follows the Chinese medicine belief that no issue in the body is isolated. Everything is connected, whether it’s a connection between various body parts and organs or between the mind, body, and spirit, a person’s wellbeing is always considered as a total picture and not one segment.

The Principle of Qi and Meridians

The root of this belief is that each person, each living thing, has qi—a life energy. Qi flows through the body in energy streams known as meridians, which are related to hundreds of points on the skin. When blockages exist in the meridians and the flow of qi is inhibited, health is compromised and pain or illness can result. Acupuncture is the strategic placement of ultra-thin (think a hair’s width) needles in the acupoints that correspond to the meridians of the issue at hand. The goal is to renew the healthy flow of qi and to restore the body to balance.

Sports Acupuncture: Aiding Athletic Performance

Sports acupuncture has a focus on orthopedics, and this is the form of Chinese medicine that the Olympic athletes are employing. Over 2,000 sports acupuncture points on the human body connect with 14 major pathways (meridians). Sports acupuncture helps to keep the normal flow of this energy unblocked. Sports acupuncture can help athletes overcome muscle contusions and tendinitis, as well as over-use injuries involving the lower back, shoulder, knee and ankle, all examples of common sports injury areas. These injuries typically require two sports acupuncture treatments a week, with a varied recovery time depending on the injury.

The Five Elements in Chinese Medicine

In Chinese medicine, there are believed to be five elements that compose the material world: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements are constantly moving and changing, and they have complex connections between material objects, including the human body. The five elements are believed to be aspects of qi, and individuals can have an abundance of one element over another in their composition.

If a patient has a strong energy of the wood element, they have a clear vision for their future and know how to bring it to fruition. When their wood qi is weak or imbalanced, they may have trouble making decisions, be emotionally constrained, or unable to express anger or other strong feelings. These people have a tendency to be workaholics, and are prone to digestive problems.

Patients with a strong fire qi are charismatic and are wonderful at socializing and inspiring others. When fire qi is weakened, a person may have low energy or become restless. They can be prone to insomnia and anxiety, and are especially sensitive to the effects of hot weather.

Someone with strong earth energy is compassionate, caring, and grounded. Earth energy types love to bring people together and are often the peacemakers of their circle of friends. When the earth energy is weak in someone, the person is prone to weight gain and digestive disorders.

When the metal element is strong in someone, the person is efficient and well-organized. These people are disciplined and enjoy structure. When the metal qi is weak, it can make someone become overly critical, depressed, or have trouble letting go of situations. When the metal qi is imbalanced, patients can be prone to skin and lung disorders.

People with an abundance of water qi are strong-willed, resilient, and know how to persevere. When out of balance, weak water qi can lead to fertility and urination issues, and emotional imbalances like anxiety.

Five Element Theory and Its Applications

In addition to the concept of these five elements, there is a form of acupuncture called Five Element Theory, which is used to interpret the relationship between the physiology and pathology of the body and its environment. Five Element Theory is one of the major components of Chinese medicine and is often used to help diagnosis patients and explain the root of imbalances.

Check out our interview with another PCOM alumnus, Greg Bantick, LAc, as he treats current Olympic athletes.

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